What is a sabbatical and why take one?

Updated 12 August 2022

Whether you're hoping to focus on developing a skill, starting a side project or simply engaging in meaningful rest, taking a sabbatical may be a good decision for you. Many ambitious, career-driven individuals have a hard time taking a holiday, let alone months or even a year off from work, but sabbaticals offer numerous benefits both for your health and your career. In this article, we explore what a sabbatical is and how you can use the opportunity for professional growth.

What is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is an extended period of leave from a full-time career that your employer agrees to grant you. Depending on the nature of your work, a sabbatical may be paid or unpaid, but it guarantees a return to your position at the end of the leave. Most sabbaticals in the UK are unpaid. There are exceptional circumstances in which you can get a paid sabbatical, though, such as when you've been with one company for a long time.

It's a misconception that sabbaticals are reserved for roles within academia. Moreover, many people assume you need to be at a certain level in your career to consider a sabbatical or that your sabbatical activities must be directly related to your job. These misconceptions keep far too many employees from enjoying extended leave that lasts longer than standard annual leave. When you're feeling overworked or burned out, taking a break is helpful, regardless of what your job title is.

What are the benefits of taking a sabbatical?

There are countless reasons why taking an extended leave from work is a good idea. A sabbatical gives you the chance to concentrate on personal goals. From focusing on seeing more of the world to rediscovering old interests, there are several positive outcomes that can result from taking a career break. Taking a meaningful sabbatical can broaden your perspective and realign your focus on personal and professional priorities.

Taking a sabbatical also means returning to work renewed and prepared to advance your career. Extended leave can refresh the initial excitement and motivation you felt when you first started your job. Many companies respect and encourage sabbaticals when taken appropriately and acknowledge their ability to keep employees motivated and reduce burnout.

Other benefits of sabbaticals include:

  • Gaining new career insight or inspiration

  • Reducing employee turnover

  • Encouraging employees to stay with the company for the long term

  • Enabling younger employees to expand their skill sets

  • Increasing employee gratitude

  • Establishing a better work-life balance

Related: 3 key sabbatical benefits and 7 reasons for taking one

How long is sabbatical leave?

Since sabbatical refers to extended leave, it may last anywhere from two months to a year. The period of a sabbatical is always longer than your normal annual leave entitlement. In general, six months is the standard length of time for a paid sabbatical.

The duration of your sabbatical should be sufficient to give you enough time and flexibility to do things such as travel, complete a major side project or immerse yourself in a new language. Keep in mind that you should not create a sabbatical with accumulated sick days or vacation days, which requires different kinds of planning and employer permissions.

Related: Seven tips to improve your organising and planning skills

How long a sabbatical lasts often depends on the nature of the job. For example, a university professor might take a sabbatical for one full academic year. Corporate jobs may offer a few months of sabbatical leave as one of the perks of employment. As such, choosing a career that offers opportunities for sabbatical leave may be at the top of your list of priorities if this is something you would like to take advantage of.

What can you do on sabbatical?

There are many different activities you might do while on sabbatical. The way you decide to spend your time should be focused on revitalising your mind and body in a way that allows you to be a better employee and find more satisfaction at work. For example, if you feel burned out at the office and find solace in writing, you might decide to work on a novel or other writing activity to both pursue a hobby and reconnect with your creative capabilities.

Another good option to explore is taking the chance to upskill in your field. Maybe you can take a short course or complete an online certification that gives you an opportunity to progress further. Learning how to code is a popular skill to learn during your career break because there are many good coding courses online and this skill can prove useful across a wide spectrum of careers.

Many people also choose to volunteer during their sabbatical leave. Volunteering can provide a greater sense of gratitude and purpose for one's career, particularly when volunteering in a role in which you interact with disadvantaged people who might not be working, such as the homeless or disabled.

Related: 12 Social, Professional and Personal Benefits of Volunteering

Taking a sabbatical gives you the chance to explore some of the following possibilities:

  • Travel the world

  • Go back to school

  • Complete personal goals

  • Participate in your community

  • Spend time with loved ones

  • Participate in a restorative activity

  • Rest

  • Connect with nature

  • Network

Whatever you end up doing during your sabbatical leave, the idea is to pursue a specific goal, whether that is working on a project or simply resting.

How can someone take a sabbatical from work?

To take a sabbatical, you should prepare a plan of action. Here are several steps you should take when considering whether a sabbatical is right for you:

1. Talk to your employer

Start by speaking with your employer about their sabbatical policy. They might require you to have worked at the company for a certain number of years. Your employer might have other set restrictions you should be aware of, such as not permitting sabbaticals during particularly busy times of the year.

If the company doesn't offer a sabbatical as an employment perk, ask about other ways you might be able to take extended leave. If they do not offer any type of extended leave options, you might prepare a statement about how a work sabbatical would benefit both you and the company. For example, it could help cut costs temporarily, give you a chance to improve job-specific skills or enable you to return with extra research for a project that benefits the company.

2. Make preparations

Once you've been approved to take a sabbatical, outline how much time you can or want to take off from your job and consider financial planning to withstand any unpaid periods. Start by setting up a dedicated savings account and putting away as much as possible. This may mean planning at least a year in advance of actually taking the sabbatical.

You may even consider downsizing your home or moving into a temporary rental situation if you know you'll be travelling for six months or more. That way, you won't have to pay for housing you won't be living in while abroad. Any costs you can reduce leading up to the sabbatical could help while you're away from your job.

Related: How to manage a budget: techniques and a step-by-step guide

3. Leave respectfully

Before you leave, you should work with your employer to ensure your organisation continues to run smoothly while you are away. This might include delegating your work, designating a person who can handle emergencies on your behalf, completing certain projects ahead of time and more. You should also work with them to establish a plan to get back up to speed when you return.

Related: How to delegate tasks in 9 steps (plus skills and importance)

Taking a sabbatical can provide many benefits and provide a clear path for you to continue growing in your career. Talk to your employer about planning an extended leave, or research sabbatical jobs to get a fresh start with a career that offers these types of benefits.

4. Keep up to date

Many industries are fast-moving, and you might find that your job looks quite different after returning from a sabbatical. For example, a new regulation could be announced during your time off that hugely impacts the way you work. It is always a good idea to keep up to date with any developments or major news impacting the industry you work in.

Consider subscribing to an industry or trade magazine during your sabbatical if you are not planning to travel much. If your industry does not have a specific publication or you plan to be out of town a lot, regularly check newspaper websites, blogs and other sources for important news about your industry. You can even check in with your coworkers regularly to ask them how they are doing and whether there are any big changes.

Taking a sabbatical can lead to both personal growth and returning to work ready to advance your career. Explore your options to find out if a sabbatical is something you'd like to consider.


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